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On Facebook, Librarian Brings 2 Students From the Early 1900s to Life

Facebook user “joe1915” writes wall posts that would be familiar to any college student these days: He stresses about tests, roots for his university’s football team, and shows off photos from campus dances.

But Joe McDonald isn’t an average smartphone-toting student. He died in 1971 — 33 years before Facebook arrived on the Web.

Donnelyn Curtis, the director of research collections and services at the University of Nevada at Reno, created Facebook profiles for Mr. McDonald and his wife, Leola Lewis, to give students a glimpse of university life during the couple’s college days. Ms. Lewis graduated in 1913, and Mr. McDonald earned his degree in mechanical engineering two years later.

With approval from Mr. McDonald’s granddaughter, Peggy McDonald, Ms. Curtis said she’s using archival material for a history project designed to appeal to a wider audience than the typical patrons of special collections.

“We’re just trying to help history come alive a little bit for students,” she said. At first, only extended family members bothered to “friend” with the pair’s profiles, but as the audience grew, Ms. Curtis said she had to find a humorous voice that would appeal to contemporary students who use Facebook every day.

“It’s been hard to walk the line between being historically accurate and making it interesting for college students,” she said. To help keep the pair’s virtual personalities consistent, Ms. Curtis composes all of their updates. Mr. McDonald’s favorite activities are boxing and “hanging out with friends,” while Ms. Lewis’ include ranching and shopping.

So far, Ms. Curtis has posted photos of the couple’s time on campus, including a picture of them together at a sophomore hop. They even talk to one another: When Mr. McDonald complained about his impending final exams, Ms. Lewis tried to lift her future husband’s spirits with a comment that began “My sympathies!” The pair married in November 1915, and Mr. McDonald went on to a long career in the news industry, retiring as president of Reno Newspapers Inc. in 1956.

Ms. Curtis said she may soon create a Facebook profile of a mutual friend of the couple who dropped out to work in a mine. She hopes that doing so will expand the project’s reach beyond her campus. She might also invite alumni who graduated in the 1950s and 60s to re-create their college-age selves.

She noted that the Facebook project has improved her own digital skills. Using Facebook and Google sites means she no longer has to seek assistance from IT staff members to create a rich, historically accurate online experience for library patrons. “It gives me some more freedom to get out of the institutional way of doing things,” she said.

Is your library using Facebook or others social media for an interesting project? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada at Reno libraries]

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